Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: United Kingdom, Part 1 [Post 10 of a Series]


In February, the Guardian included a piece on the results of study of freedom of speech on British campuses conducted by the online magazine Spiked:

“80% of universities are shown, as a result of their official policies and actions, to have either restricted or actively censored free speech and expression on campus beyond the requirements of the law. Spiked‘s first ever Free Speech University Rankings–which were overseen by Professor Dennis Hayes, head of the centre for educational research at Derby University and Dr. Joanna Williams, senior lecturer in higher education at Kent University–show each university administration and students’ union graded green, amber or red based on an assessment of their policies and actions. Institutions have been given an overall ranking based on the two combined.

“The research paints a picture of students keen to discourage racism but sometimes with almost comic effect. Birmingham university’s student union has banned ‘racist’ sombreros and native American dress from being worn on campus. Lancaster union has banned initiation ceremonies, defined in part as ‘engaging in public stunts and buffoonery.’

“Essex is among the worst performers in Spiked‘s research–one of five universities in which the student union and the administration are both assessed as actively preventing freedom of speech. The other four are Portsmouth, Northampton, Bath Spa and the University of the West of England” (Tickle).

Tom Slater, assistant editor at Spiked and co-ordinator of the project, made an especially insightful observation: “’What’s worrying is we seem to have moved away from a clear ideological divide to an apolitical calculation as to who should be censored, because of a wider judgment based purely on the potential to upset and offend’” (Tickle).


In April, ahead of the national elections, the Times Education Supplement interviewed representatives of the major political parties on a dozen and a half issues related to higher education. Joanna Williams posed this question: “Is it more important for universities to prevent terrorism or defend academic freedom, and what are you going to do to address universities’ concerns that the Counter-Terrorism and Security [Act] will threaten academic freedom by making universities ‘agents of the state’?”

Baroness Sal Brinton, the president of the Liberal Democrats, responded: “The House of Lords fought a lengthy and valiant battle over the bill and succeeded in amending it so that the universities’ duties to promote freedom of speech are embedded alongside their duties to cooperate with the ‘Prevent’ programme. The new and much amended guidelines have just been issued and are much more acceptable although the precise wording of the monitoring arrangements for external speakers is still subject to negotiation and will not be finalised until after the election. The minister also confirmed that if no agreement is reached, the guidance will not be implemented for the higher and further education sectors. This is expected to be published in July.”

Greg Clark, Minister of Universities, Science, and Cities in the Conservative government, stated: “The fundamental duty of any government is to ensure that the country is protected and people are safe from acts of terrorism. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, passed with broad support, places a duty on a range of bodies ‘to have due regard . . . to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.’ Most universities and colleges have long recognised their responsibilities in this regard. The act makes explicit reference to the need to ensure freedom of speech and academic freedom.”

And Liam Byrne, the Labour Party’s Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills, argued: “It is right for universities to have a role in preventing radicalization, but the obligations placed on them should be reasonable, proportionate, and shouldn’t interfere with academic freedom. That is why Labour argued that the government guidelines on the Prevent agenda were unworkable when they were first produced–particularly the requirement that any outside speaker had to submit an outline of their remarks in advance. A Labour government will ensure that universities continue to be bastions of free speech.” (“Answers for Everything”)

At least one faculty member has very publicly applauded the new requirement that British colleges and universities take a more proactive role in identifying Islamic radicalization of their campuses. Anthony Glees, the director of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, has focused in his research and scholarship on “how young British Muslims are susceptible to radicalization and has argued that universities often turn a blind eye to the spread of Islamic extremism on their campuses. His scholarly work and outspoken views on the topic have earned him few friends in academe, but today, with public concern growing about the number of Britons leaving home to join the Islamic State, . . . his ideas are at the center of a debate about what role, if any, universities should play in curbing the flow of fighters” (Labi).

Glees “contends that some views simply do not merit being aired in a university setting”: “‘Academic freedom never had anything to do with admitting people on campus who believe homosexuals should be stoned to death,’ he says. ‘The purpose of higher education is education, not to enable the indoctrination of young British Muslims with extreme views’” (Labi). But many other faculty have vocally disagreed. For instance, Joanna Williams, the director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Kent, has suggested that “fears stirred up by the law will lead to overly cautious decisions about speakers and reduce an already shrinking space on British campuses for an exchange of ideas”: “’There is lots of pressure on universities to censor and ban things,’ she says, citing the growing use of so-called trigger warnings and the prohibition of the song ‘Blurred Lines,’ with what some call misogynist lyrics, from many universities. The government’s new measure suggests ‘that there are some ideas that are too dangerous to be talked about on a university campus. . . . I think that’s very dangerous if you can’t deal with or learn how to deal with dangerous or controversial and different ideas’” (Labi).


In September, the Belfast Telegraph provided the following overview of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act and the manner in which it was publicly presented and justified:

“Leading universities have been named and shamed by David Cameron for giving a platform to extremists as a new legal duty on institutions to “protect impressionable young minds” was announced.

“Whitehall’s Extremism Analysis Unit claimed at least 70 events featuring hate speakers were held on campuses last year and security officials also have concerns about the number of young people being radicalised and travelling to join Islamic State jihadists.

“The University of London’s Queen Mary, King’s College and School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) along with Kingston University were identified as holding the most events, according to Downing Street.

“Among the speakers were Haitham Al-Haddad, Dr Uthman Lateef, Alomgir Ali, Imran Ibn Mansur, also known as Dawah Man, Hamza Tzortis and Dr Salman Butt, who have all publicly denounced British values.

“Under plans announced by the Prime Minister, who is chairing a meeting of the extremism task force, universities will be forced to combat extremism on campus.

“Mr Cameron said: ‘All public institutions have a role to play in rooting out and challenging extremism. It is not about oppressing free speech or stifling academic freedom; it is about making sure that radical views and ideas are not given the oxygen they need to flourish. Schools, universities and colleges, more than anywhere else, have a duty to protect impressionable young minds and ensure that our young people are given every opportunity to reach their potential. That is what our one nation government is focused on delivering’” (“David Cameron . . .”).


Works Cited:

“Answers for Everything.” Times Educational Supplement 17 Apr. 2015: No. 5142.

“David Cameron Urges Universities to Combat Campus Extremism.” Belfast Telegraph 17 Sep. 2015.

Labi, Aisha. “New Law in Britain Pushes Universities to Help Stanch the Flow of Islamic Fighters.” Chronicle of Higher Education 30 Mar. 2015.

Tickle, Louise. “Free Speech? Not at Four in Five UK Universities.” Guardian 2 Feb. 2015.


1 Dennis Hayes

Dennis Hayes

2 Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

3 Tom Slater

Tom Slater

4 Baroness Sal Brinton

Baroness Sal Brinton

5 Greg Clark

Greg Clark

02/03/15 Northampton Liam Byrne MP Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills visited The University of Northampton today

Liam Byrne

7 Anthony Glees

Anthony Gees


Previous Posts in the Series:

Post 1. Canada—University of British Columbia [Part 1]:

Post 2. Canada—University of British Columbia [Part 2]:

Post 3. Canada—University of New Brunswick:

Post 4. Canada—Capilano University:

Post 5. Canada—Overview:

Post 6. Canada—Additional Items:

Post 7. Australia– Nikolic, Powell, and Price:

Post 8: Australia–Copenhagen Consensus Centre at Flinders University and Monash University Branch Campus in China:

Post 9: New Zealand—Police and Government Interference in Academic Freedom,Tertiary Education Union and Association of Scientists:


10 thoughts on “Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: United Kingdom, Part 1 [Post 10 of a Series]

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